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Successfully Tracing African-American Ancestry

Searching for African-American roots differs from tracing the genealogies of other ethnic groups in the United States. Slavery, the origin of this variation, has created unique records among blacks. Making the most of applicable sources, African-American researchers can successfully trace their pedigrees back to slaves freed after the Civil War.


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Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Nathan Murphy
Word Count: 642 (approx.)
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Searching for African-American roots differs from tracing the genealogies of other ethnic groups in the United States. Slavery, the origin of this variation, has created unique records among blacks. Making the most of applicable sources, African-Americans can successfully trace their pedigrees back to slaves freed after the Civil War. In addition, DNA research promises to aid descendants of this ethnic group in discovering their African homelands.

Recent newspaper headlines are replete with announcements of groundbreaking DNA projects promising to identify specific African tribes from which living African-Americans descend. For nominal fees, usually around $200, these tests detect the mitochondrial sequence that subjects have inherited from an ancestral African tribe, effectively proving the person's genetic heritage from that tribe. One example is the study currently underway at Boston University, called the Roots Project. Information can be found at Their splendid Web site contains much useful information.

Despite the dynamic nature of this field, written sources for tracing one's ancestry have not changed much from methodologies used 50 years ago. Vital records, censuses, land records, and probate records include valuable material freely accessible to the public. The author is acquainted with tracing African-American ancestry in Kentucky, which will serve as an example in this type of research.

Vital records such as birth certificates, marriage records, and death certificates, contain similar information for post-Civil War African-Americans, as for other United States ethnicities. Marriage books for blacks were often kept separately from non-blacks, identifying the racial discrimination of those times. For this reason, always check for a second collection of race-specific marriage registers at county courthouses.

Kentucky began recording births, marriages and deaths in 1852. These antebellum sources include both white and black births and deaths, but only white marriages. In addition, African-Americans usually kept separate cemeteries, wherein tombstones identifying birth and death dates can be located.

An important source specifically pertinent to tracing African-American genealogies is the Freedman's Bank records. These financial accounts often name family relationships amongst ex-slaves. They have been digitized by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and are available for purchase on CD for $6.50. For additional information, see the article titled "Freedman's Bank Records Expands African American Family History Research," dated Feb. 26, 2001, at the Familysearch Web site, at

The first valuable census for African-American research is the 1870 U.S. Federal Census. Chronologically the first federal census taken after the Civil War, this record provides what is usually a first glimpse into the lives of African-American families. Pre-1850 censuses provide tally marks categorized by approximate ages and genders for unnamed slaves. Other special censuses, such as the 1850 slave census, quantitatively identify the number of slaves under a particular master. This is key information, as many freed slaves adopted the surname of their prior master, and identifying the name of their former master can lead to additional ancestral information in your family.

Once a slave's master's name is known, land and probate records become essential to tracing African-American ancestry before the Civil War. To the chagrin of our nation, in the past blacks were treated as personal property, and spoken of as such in public records. Slaves are identified only by given names, and were often bought and sold, which records can be found in deed books. In the wills of slave owners, African-Americans often passed as inheritances to children. Deeds and wills are accessible at county courthouses. Many of these records are also available on microfilm at the Family History Library and its 3,700 worldwide Family History Centers.

Tracing African-American roots can provide living descendants with the satisfaction of knowing who their ancestors were. Written documents can, at the very least, trace families back to those who were alive in 1870. Scientific breakthroughs, such as African-American DNA studies, promise to help members of this significant U.S. ethnicity conquer previous research barriers and extend knowledge of family origins back to specific African tribes.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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